Out With the New, In With the Old

In Minneapolis and elsewhere, proponents of the New Urbanist planning movement are promising a new tomorrow -- one that looks a lot like yesterday.

Indeed, Farmer, along with MCDA executive director Rebecca Yanisch, recently spoke at a luncheon seminar titled "From Planning to Implementation: The Coming Development Boom in Central Cities"; and the Star Tribune, as part of its "Downtown's Pulse" series last December, outlined numerous "moderate- to high-income" residential projects in the works. Yet the New Urbanism has become much more than a planning movement or an architectural style--and also much more than a new wave of gentrification. It's a system of long-range, large-scale plans to re-conceive the city.

The Twin Cities don't yet have any by-the-book New Urbanist projects, but as with cities all across the country, a number of developers and others are cashing in on the cachet of the New Urbanism and its aesthetic of picket fences, pitched roofs, and front porches. The trade magazine Builder recently placed on its "hot list" the strategy of "marketing a project as a 'traditional neighborhood development'--even if it's not," and even businesses like Lunds and SuperAmerica have renovated some of their stores along New Urbanist lines, using lots of brickwork, wrought-iron fencing, and awnings.

"If you break down the style games and a lot of the high-profile, Celebration-type stuff, the New Urbanism doesn't just mean a retro town," says William Morrish, a nationally prominent New Urbanist who co-directs the UM's Design Center for the American Urban Landscape. "There's a lot more to it, but unfortunately the way it's presented in the media is as a sort of retro thing." The Metropolitan Livable Communities Act, passed last year, has allocated grant money for several projects with the intention of encouraging cities and developers to proceed down the path of New Urbanism. West Ridge Market in Minnetonka, for instance, is in large part just another link in the chain of strip malls along Highway 394, but it also has trails connecting it to nearby parks and wetlands and housing--everything from luxury condominiums and family townhouses to rental apartments and senior housing. St. Louis Park also received a grant to help in creating a 25-year master plan for its "downtown," an area just east of Highways 7 and 100 that will eventually include about 1,000 additional residences, as well as more office and retail space--quite unorthodox for a site that's already considered "fully developed."

On a larger scale, the Design Center has developed ideas for transforming ailing first-ring suburbs into thriving "metropolitan towns," which were unveiled at a two-day conference last December. Part of the strategy involves holding on to the the middle-class population that's still left in these suburbs, while making them more attractive to newcomers. For instance, the cities of Richfield and Roseville have undertaken programs that reconstruct houses from the '50s and '60s with amenities that contemporary home buyers want: things like first-floor family rooms, bigger bathrooms and kitchens, double garages, and "couple suites."

Another New Urbanist-inspired plan is underway in the Sumner/Glenwood area just west of downtown Minneapolis. For decades this area has been an isolated neighborhood dominated by public housing for low-income and poor people, but plans for its redevelopment--a result of the Hollman housing discrimination lawsuit--are on the cutting edge of public housing policy. Newsweek calls it a "reverse-scattered-site" approach, the idea being that if suburbanites protest low-income housing sites in their communities, why not redevelop public housing sites and make them attractive enough, in a New Urbanist kind of way, to appeal to better-off people as well? Over the next few years Sumner/Glenwood is supposed to become a neighborhood with 50 percent of its housing in the public and low-income class, and 50 percent renting or selling at market rates. "The core of what people are talking about with livable communities is a mixed-income neighborhood," says Morrish, whose Design Center also played a key role in this project. "From a design standpoint, a range of options in housing can have all kinds of effects from a long-term, social and economic standpoint." The big challenge now, he says, is getting it built, "because this is a city that so far only knows how to deliver Target Center."

Indeed, there's the world of utopian, mixed-income villages, and there's the world of Target Centers--and garbage burners, and megamalls, and a propensity to tear down anything vaguely historic. As a set of beliefs and ideals that are inseparable from porches and picket fences, the New Urbanist ideology may seem old-fashioned and full of common sense; who could object to the kind of vibrant, people-friendly environs it promises? But like the sunlit lawns and cheerful mechanical robins in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, the New Urbanism has subtler and perhaps more disturbing undertones.

"Like all the architects who come off as form-givers, [the New Urbanists] want us to live in certain ways," says Tom Martinson, a planner based in Minneapolis who hopes to contribute to the Sumner/Glenwood redevelopment. "And sometimes that ideology doesn't come off in practical or universal ways." Just as modernist, International Style skyscrapers were visual symbols of America's corporate power and efficiency in the 1950s and '60s, the New Urbanism, which is in large part a reaction to the ravages spawned by that era, embodies fairly specific beliefs and ideals. And while the forms may be familiar, that doesn't mean the social agenda is the same as in the good old days those forms want to conjure.

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